When unknown men abducted Parwin Wafa’s son in a bid to stop her teaching girls in Afghanistan, she refused to capitulate. They killed him. Defiant, she continues to promote female education, despite ongoing threats to her life and family.
Fellow Afghan Dr Pighla Dida was also undeterred when militant assailants warned her to close her small gynaecology practice. In retaliation, they maimed her 10-year-old son in a grenade attack. Later they murdered her brother too.
I met the pair at the end of June when they travelled to London on a simple mission to ask the British government for support in their work back home.
Parwin Wafa is the headteacher of a girls’ school in Laghman province in eastern Afghanistan. She set up the area’s first female education facility in 1982 and has defied the Taliban and other conservative groups ever since in her calling to promote learning among girls.
When the Taliban closed her school, she resorted to secretly teaching pupils inside her home. Their threats escalated, until five years ago, they abducted her 18-year-old son Hamayood.
She explains in a flat, matter-of-fact tone: “For ten months the kidnappers kept my son alive. During that time we used to receive calls threatening us, but I didn’t stop my work.”
Was she ever tempted to capitulate? “No, these men were untrustworthy, I didn’t know they would return my son whatever I did.”
She pauses. “As a result my son was killed and his body was left on deserted land. Later the seasonal floods brought his body to an area where there were some nomadic people living and it was then we received his dead body.” His torso was pierced with 12 bullet wounds.
In the face of tragedy, how did she find the strength to carry on her work, even as renewed threats against other family members arrived?
“I had a commitment,” she says defiantly, but with a shaking voice. “I know Afghanistan is in desperate need of education. I thought, if I give up, will I give a good example to other women involved in the promotion of girls’ education? So that need for women’s education gave me strength.”
Softening, she adds: “Actually it strengthened the commitment that I had in my heart. My father, right from childhood, inspired me to become a teacher and spread the light of education among the girls.
“That is the only way we can bring about great prosperity in my country.” Discussing education, she becomes animated again.
With smiling eyes she explains the tactics she employs to convince parents in her rural, conservative society to send their girls to her school. Her first course of action is to write to the family, countering bogus claims that female education goes against Islam and including lines from the Koran that support her argument.
Failing that, she will travel to the parents’ house. How successful is her approach? She grins: “I haven’t lost a single girl yet”.
Wafa has a beneficent wiliness about her and her aura of easy good will explains why even the sternest conservative patriarchs relent to her.
She recounts how one Imam sent her a pair of shoes to thank her for providing him with water-tight arguments with which to defend his decision to educate his daughter.
Still, her door-to-door approach, and her irresistable personality, raised her profile in the area and gave rise to “anger among people who opposed girls’ education.”
That resentment increased when she stood as a parliamentary candidate in the country’s elections.
“That’s what led to the kidnapping of my son,” she explains, with a deep sigh.
She has not discovered the identity of his murderers, let alone attained justice. “I can’t confirm [who did it]. Afghanistan is full of all types of spoilers and it could be anybody. Talib is just another label – people simply say ‘Oh it’s the Taliban’ when anything bad happens.”
She is far from optimistic about the future. “We’re struggling,” she says, pointing out that education is a secondary concern behind security. “We cannot do anything to improve schools or teaching until the security of the country improves.”
Dr Pighla Dida has a deep, sonorous voice and a dark sense of humour.
“The obstructions to my work?”, she cackles bleakly, “Well, bombing, suicide bombs, threats... There are many problems.”
A gynaecologist from a district near Jalalabad, her work – controversial in her rural, traditional society – has also prompted tragedy. Like Wafa, however, she refuses to be cowed by the shattering assaults on her family and the continued threats.
In 2007, a grenade attack on the back garden of her home wounded her ten-year-old son, shredding his legs to ribbons.
Although she refused to give up her work, her decision to carry on is clearly one that haunts her.
Holding my gaze, she says slowly: “When I see the sadness of my son sometimes – how sad he is, how he suffers – I wish I had quit at the time they warned me to quit.”
Shrugging, she adds: “I feel it is my moral duty to carry on my job. If I quit my profession, then which other doctor can I expect to help the needy people of Aghanistan?”
When victims of sexual abuse and rape used to come to Dida, she admits that at first she refused to help them. It took an incident horrific even by the brutal standards to which she is accustomed that prompted her to furtive action.
A local girl in her early teens who had fallen pregnant outside of marriage was killed by her family. First the parents poisoned their daughter, to weaken her, but also to prompt vomiting and diarrhea, which was designed to convince their neighbours that the death was a natural one. Then they smothered her in the night.
Dida says: “The girl had a large extended family. Her pregnancy was considered to be outside the bounds of honour, and they didn’t know what to do with her.”
She sighs. It is not just girls at risk either – an unplanned pregnancy, often the result of abuse or rape, can endanger every female member of the family.
“After I perform an ultrasound on a girl, often it's the mothers who beg me for help. If you don’t, they say, we’ll all be killed – me, my daughter, all the women in the family.”
Nowadays she offers secret abortions, although she does not advertise the service. “I only do it if they beg me and I can see there will be killing otherwise. I must help those kinds of girls.”
She was warned against her work from the start. “I received many threat letters claiming my work is un-Islamic and warning me to stop helping these people.”
Her refusal led to the attack on her son. She says: “It was evening time when my children were playing outside and a bomb was thrown into my house. There was a big explosion when I came out. My son was covered in blood.
“He was treated by Americans. He had injured legs and now he’s disabled. He’s suffered a lot.
“It took them 7 or 8 months to repair what muscle they could at the top of both legs and then they performed plastic surgery.”
The perpetrators remain unknown. “I can’t point to one particular group. There are many different such groups in Afghanistan... It is inhuman and an act of cruetly.”
Following further threats, Dida’s brother was killed in another targeted bomb attack near her home.
Like Wafa she is concerned about her country’s future as Western forces accelerate their departure.
“We are even more worried now because of the transition of the government that’s happening in Afghanistan. While I’m sitting here, my thoughts and concerns are on my kids and what’s going to happen to them.”
She is in London to ask for help. “I just want to ask your government to build a hospital for me where I can treat these women physically and mentally.”
She refuses to accept she is brave or of unnatural mettle. “I am one of thousands of women to have suffered – widows, orphans, victims of sexual abuse and rape, there is every kind of suffering and such poverty.”
She pauses, then smiles wryly, remembering something. “I met a woman here earlier who told me she doesn’t eat lamb – doesn’t eat meat at all. Well, I was quite surprised!” she exclaims. “In Afghanistan, people slaughter people, they shoot and kill children and don’t they don’t feel a thing. Are here, here people care about animals!”
“Look at the mercy your people have and look at what people do in Afghanistan.”